Hunting wild turkeys is one of the most challenging and enjoyable pursuits, with thousands of hunters going out each autumn and spring to test their skills.
Also enjoyable are the delicious meals awaiting with the succulent meat of a hen or gobbler. Whether you’re deep frying turkey nuggets or creating a more in-depth meal with the legs, thighs, wings and breast meat, it’s always good to know how to appropriately clean, dress and prepare the birds. Here are some proven tips for cleaning and preparing wild turkeys to eat.
By Lovett Williams Jr.
For Turkey & Turkey Hunting
Preparing the Carcass for Cooking
Turkeys are plucked, skinned, or “breasted-out” for cooking. When a young fall turkey is to be pan fried, skin it whole and cut it up. The skin is not needed for frying.
The breast of an old gobbler is tender enough for frying, but his legs and thighs contain bone slivers and his wings are tough. Use the breast for frying or grilling and use his legs and other parts for soup stock or hash.
If the bird is to be smoked, baked, or BBQ’d, pluck it and cook it whole regardless of age. You don’t have to eat the tough legs and wings, but they are needed for appearance, if you care about such things.
Fried turkey is especially good camp fare because the bird is easy to prepare and to cook with common camp utensils. To skin a turkey for frying, hang the bird by the head and make an incision through the skin around the lower neck. Pull away the skin down the neck and off the breast to the wings and out the wing toward the tip. The skin tears easily. Just keep pulling, cutting, and tearing it off.
When the last joint of the wing is reached, cut off and discard the wing tip. If you are to use the wing bones for making yelpers, you may as well cut off the wing where the humerus meets the ulna/radius and remove the bones later.
With the wings skinned or severed, pull the skin downward off the rest of the body. If the specimen is an adult spring gobbler, there will usually be a fatty “breast sponge.” The fat is edible but very fattening.
Work the skin down the legs to the joint where the scaly part begins. Cut the skin off the legs at the joint, but leave the lower legs and feet on the carcass to use as handles.
When the base of the tail is reached, cut off the “pope’s nose” where the large tail feathers are. The tail and rump feathers can be saved for a wall mount.
Go over the hanging carcass and cut and tear the skin from any remaining areas. Also pick off loose feathers adhering to the carcass. Take any remnants of entrails out of the carcass and wash the bird inside and out.
To breast out a turkey for frying without completely skinning it, make an incision from the crop to the anus, and pull the skin away to expose the breast muscle. Cut the muscle away from the bone in the middle by running the knife next to the bone. Pull and cut the breast muscle away from the bone, one side at a time. After the main muscle is off, cut off any meat pieces you missed. Cut up the breast for frying.
The turkey’s skin is needed for baking, barbecuing, or smoking. Plucking a turkey is no more trouble than skinning one. A plucked whole turkey is esthetically superior to a skinned one on the dinner platter. Scalding is the best way.
In addition to the things you normally use to prepare any game for the kitchen. Cut off the beard before scalding, but leave the legs on for handling the carcass during the scalding and plucking processes. You can remove the spurs after you are through scalding.
Bring to a boil about two gallons of water. Add a tablespoonful of dishwashing detergent. Place the turkey in the tub or cauldron, holding it by the lower legs. With a small pot, dip and pour scalding water over the carcass, being sure to pour water on all the dry places. (You will see the detergent work as the water immediately soaks to the skin.)
Slosh the carcass around in the soapy water to get it soaked, but don’t allow any part of the bird to sit in the hot water long enough for the skin to cook. Don’t scald the scaly lower legs if you want to save them or the spurs.
When scalding water has been applied to the entire carcass, lay it out and test pluck a few feathers. Test pluck all parts of the plumage so that you can apply more water while it is still hot enough. Use a cup of tap water to dip your fingers in so that you can test pluck without waiting for your fingers to cool in the air.
Pour more scalding water on the base of any feathers that won’t pull easily, especially on the wing tips and tail. If you have trouble pulling the large wing feathers, use more scalding water and pliers.
Pull only a few body feathers at a time to prevent the skin from tearing. When you have pulled the feathers that come out easily, pour more scalding water on the rest of the plumage and finish plucking.
If you have not scalded a bird before, on your first one take special care not to over scald the skin, because the skin will tear where it has cooked. You can always use more scalding water if the feathers do not loosen, but you cannot uncook the skin if it becomes overdone.
With practice, you may learn to dip the turkey directly into a tub of hot water and pull it out ready to pluck, but the dip-and pour method described here is the best way for occasional turkey pluckers.
You can “dry” pluck a turkey without scalding, but the process is more difficult and gets feathers all over the place. Do it while the carcass is still warm and limber, in the woods, right after shooting it.
You will find it difficult to pull out the large wing and tail feathers without scalding, even if the carcass is still warm, and when you get back to camp with a dry-picked turkey, you won’t have much to show or photograph.
After the bird is plucked, remove the lower legs and head, leaving only a two-inch length of neck on the carcass—a longer neck will get in the way during cooking.
Some people cut off the last joint of the wing instead of pulling the large feathers. Either way is okay, but a baked turkey looks better on the table with its wings on. A couple of cups of properly placed scalding water will loosen the toughest wing feathers. Cooked wing bones are okay for making yelpers, so don’t worry about that.
Do not remove the fatty tissue under the breast skin of an adult spring gobbler if it is to be plucked and cooked whole—the fat makes your gobbler a naturally basted bird as seen on TV and in the grocery store.
If you saved the liver, heart, and gizzard, open the gizzard, remove the contents, and pull off the inside lining. Find the small greenish gall bladder in the liver and remove it with a sharp knife, then rinse the liver. The heart requires no special treatment.
Cooking directions for domestic turkeys apply to wild turkeys. I’ll mention only the traditional cooking methods. If you want more, look in a good cookbook such as the L. L. Bean Game & Fish Cookbook or any standard cookbook.
|Weight of dressed bird (lbs)||Time, unstuffed (hours)||Time, stuffed (hours)|
If you plan to stuff the turkey, precook the stuffing. There is no way to cook anything inside the bird’s carcass without overcooking the outside of it. You will find other advantages to cooking and serving the dressing separately. It won’t hurt to stick an onion or apple in the body cavity as a source of moisture during cooking, but you don’t need to.
Tie the legs across the open body cavity and pull them together to close the cavity. Tie the wings to each other with twine across the breast. Rub the skin with whatever you like—pepper, salt, oil, butter, garlic, or vinegar, but do not add BBQ sauce at this stage—it will begin to char before the bird is cooked. If the bird is to be charcoal baked and BBQ sauce is desired, apply it as you finish cooking or serve it as a side dish.
The traditional ways to cook a whole turkey are oven baking, plain smoking, smoke-cooking, and charcoal roasting. The differences are what you cook in, the level of heat, the amount of smoke, and the total time in the smoker/cooker. Oven baking takes 2-1/2 to 4 hours depending on the temperature, the size of the bird, and whether or not the bird is stuffed. Plain smoking a gobbler takes 10-12 hours; smoke-cooking 6-8 hours; roasting over coals 3-4 hours.
Oven baking. You can use any baking procedure recommended for a domestic turkey, including stuffing and covering with a baking bag or roaster lid. Some recipes call for changing oven temperature and covering and uncovering the bird during the cooking process. All those methods work. I prefer to cook the turkey covered then remove the cover for final browning.
If you follow the cookbook for domestic turkeys, reduce the recommended cooking time by about fifteen to twenty percent. The thin body structure of a wild turkey does not require as much baking as does a rotund domestic turkey.
|Oven roasting||325?F||15 min./lb.|
|Full smoking||Warm smoke only||10 hours|
|Smoke cooking||Coals and smoke source||6-8 hours|
|Frying||Very hot-400?F||2 minutes per side|
An overcooked wild turkey tastes like an overcooked domestic one—dry. Be sure the cook knows there is nothing about a wild turkey that calls for sentencing to long confinement in the oven.
Concern for parasites in wild game is unfounded. Humans have not been in the Western Hemisphere long enough for wild animal parasites to evolve ways to invade us. The life cycles of parasites require specific intermediate hosts and complex life cycles. There is nothing in a fresh wild turkey that you can catch, even if you eat it raw. So it is not necessary to parboil, salt soak, marinate, tenderize, radiate, or sanitize a wild turkey for human consumption. Neither do you need to stuff fruits, vegetables, other animals, other parts of animals, or other things inside the body cavity. Do nothing to a wild turkey you would not do to a domestic one, except don’t roast it quite as long.
Smoking. Many local welders make good smokers that can be used for plain smoking, smoke-cooking, or charcoal roasting. My favorite smoker was made in Old Town, Florida from bottled gas cylinders. It has a separate compartment for making wood smoke and is adaptable to almost any mode of cooking.
Plain smoking is best done without heating the turkey above about 120?F. Since the temperature is not very hot, you do not have to closely tend the smoking process—just keep the smoke rolling. A smoked turkey’s skin, which will be almost black, should be removed before eating. Smoking does not work with a skinned turkey.
Smoke-cooking. My favorite way to cook a whole turkey is over a charcoal fire in a smoker that can be closed for partial smoking. Most so-called smokers are actually smoke-cookers. For smoke-cooking, use heat under the bird and plenty of smoke. The popular dome-shaped manufactured “smokers” with moisture pans work well for smoke-cooking and require little attention.
Charcoal roasting. For charcoal roasting, use more heat and less smoke than for smoke-cooking. Cooking time over charcoal depends on the size of the bird and level of heat, and requires a little more attention than other methods because of the possibility of burning. Keep the charcoal fire short of flaming up, with the bird about ten to twelve inches from the coals. If too much fat is dripping into the fire, raise the bird or dampen the heat.
It is a good practice to push the hot coals out from directly under the turkey—make an open circle so that the fat will drip in the open spot and not on hot coals. The turkey will cook more evenly that way, with less attention, and the fire will not flame up.
Keep the turkey’s back to the fire for most of the cooking process to prevent the breast from overcooking. Check the bird frequently to avoid charring. Turn it as the skin browns. The less experience you have in BBQing turkeys, the more you need to check it.
When using a rotisserie, balance the bird on the spit before placing it on the fire. Follow the procedures recommended for your equipment.
Whole hickory nuts dropped a few at a time into the coals make an ideal smoke source. The nuts can be used green directly from the tree, husks and all. They are convenient to store and have a high concentration of the substances that make hickory wood a good smoking wood. If dried nuts are used, soak them a few hours in water. Red bay is a good smoking wood, as are oak, mesquite, and buttonwood. Everywhere smoking is done, there is a favorite smoking wood—use whatever is in vogue in your neighborhood, but do not use soft woods such as pine, fir, cedar, or spruce. (If you didn’t already know that, put the turkey back on ice while you read a BBQ book.)
Spring gobblers and adult fall hens usually have enough natural fat to keep the breast well basted while they smoke or roast. I usually baste juvenal turkeys lightly a couple of times with vegetable oil and sometimes squeeze a fresh grapefruit or orange on the cooking bird.
The giblets will fry up with the rest of the bird, if the bird is fried, or can be chopped and used in gravy with baked turkey or to go with rice or another starchy dish. If gravy is to be made, you may as well save the neck and boil it to make gravy stock.
If you saved the legs and thighs of an old gobbler, boil them until the meat falls off the bones, remove the main bones and the splinter bones, and use the meat and stock for soup and gravy.
You can roast a turkey in the kitchen oven until it is about half done and finish it in a smoker to pick up the smoked flavor; or you can reverse the process and start it in the smoker and finish it in the oven.
Carving a whole turkey
Carve a wild turkey as you would a tame one, with a sharp carving knife, large fork, and large platter. You may need a second platter for the carved meat and tongs for serving. You will need to touch the bird with your fingers as you carve; you can do it bare-handed or use a cloth cooking glove on one hand. If you do it bare-handed, wash your hands in front of all the guests before you start.
Slide the turkey carefully from the cooker to the platter to keep the carcass intact. With the fork, push one of the legs to the side. It will usually separate at the joint between the thigh and body or at the drumbone. If it doesn’t separate, cut the whole leg off at the junction of the thigh and body.
If the drumbone pulls out of the leg in your hand, it means you have slightly overcooked the bird. Put the bone where it won’t be thrown out after dinner and use it in making a yelper. If the bone doesn’t pull out of the leg, hold the small end of the drumstick with the fingers and, with the knife, separate it from the thigh. Continue to hold the drumstick and slice the meat off it parallel to the bone onto the plate. If it is an old turkey, the drumstick tendons will have ossified into “splinter bones.” Lay the drumstick aside and plan to pick out the splinter bones when you make soup. The thigh of an old gobbler will be a little tough but edible—remove and slice it parallel to the bone. Save the femur bone for making yelpers. Put the bone up as soon as you finish carving so your aunt will not throw it out when she helps with the cleanup.
Next, tackle the wing on the same side you are working on by pushing it away from the body with the fork. Cut it off where it joins the body. (The joint is probably deeper in the shoulder of the breast than you thought.) Lay aside the wing to serve whole or cut it up. Don’t forget to salvage the wing bones immediately after dinner.
With the wing and leg removed, one side of the breast will be exposed. Slice the breast thinly, parallel to the body, using short strokes. The slices will fall away from the body and pile up on each other. If one side of the bird furnishes enough meat to begin dinner, leave the other half for later carving—it will remain warmer and moister if left uncarved. When you need more turkey, do the same to the other side of the bird.
After taking the legs, wings, and major breast meat, there is still more turkey there, but the process of getting it is less artistic. That is a good time to tell a story about the hunt to divert attention from the carving.
The bony carcass should be saved and the meat boiled off the bones to make soup. Boil it the same day and save the soup ingredients in the refrigerator. If you plan to use cooked turkey bones to make yelpers, do not permit them to be boiled for long periods in making stock or soup. Excessive boiling will cause bone softening. Take them out before putting the scraps in the soup pot.
Grilled turkey breast
Grilling over charcoal is one way to cook the breast you have salvaged from a specimen destined for the taxidermist or taken from a gobbler with legs and wings too tough to cook.
Use any seasoning you like—black pepper and garlic powder are usually enough. Hold the salt until you are ready to eat it. Get the coals very hot and grill the breast in large pieces, close to the coals, as you would small beef steaks. Do not cook it any longer than you would a rare beef steak. Do not brown it. Turkey breast gets tougher the longer you cook it.
Wild turkey has traditionally been fried by hunters and housewives. Edward A. McIlhenny recommended frying wild turkey in his wild turkey book written in 1914. Breast meat of even old gobblers is tender. Fried turkey breast “fingers” came long before anybody ever heard of chicken “nuggets” or “tenders.”
A turkey to be fried is normally skinned. If you cut up a turkey as you would a chicken for frying, the pieces will be too large. It is best to bone out a turkey and cut up the large pieces.
Cut up a skinned or plucked young turkey by removing the scaly lower legs and most of the neck. Remove the wings and cut them into frying-sized pieces. Bone out most of the thigh into about eight to ten pieces. The breast should be removed, one slab from each side, and sliced into frying-sized pieces—each piece about the size of two fingers.
The drumstick of even a young fall turkey contains a few ossified tendons that need to be removed for frying. Cut the raw meat from the drumstick in four or five pieces parallel to the bone and remove each tendon with a knife. (If it’s an old turkey, lay the drumstick aside along with the wings to use them for soup stock.)
Dip the pieces in buttermilk and shake them in a double grocery paper bag containing flour or cracker meal, or use any method of battering you would for frying chicken or fish.
Fry in about one inch of cooking oil in a covered cast iron skillet or chicken fryer over medium-high heat. Turn each piece to lightly brown both sides and finish the pieces with the top off the fryer.
Most cooks overcook the white breast meat of birds such as chicken, quail, turkey, and grouse. The best procedure is to remove the breast pieces from the skillet just before they are brown—a very light golden color is just right. Try undercooking white breast meat and you will probably have discovered how to cook it to perfection.
You can fry a turkey whole if you have a cauldron or some other very large pot, a hot fire source such as a fish cooker, and several gallons of cooking oil. Salt and pepper the whole plucked or skinned bird and drop it into deep frying fat. Fry it for approximately half an hour. Let it cool for a few minutes and cut it up for serving.
However you plan to cook your turkey, don’t let it work its way to the bottom of the deep freezer. Eat it on the very next suitable occasion. A deceased wild turkey deserves at least that much respect.
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